Budapest, Hungary — The two senior officials of Hungary’s weather service were fired on Monday after an inaccurate rain forecast led to the postponement of a fireworks display on the country’s most important national holiday.
The dismissal of the director and deputy director of the National Meteorological Service prompted accusations of political interference by the Hungarian nationalist government.
The annual St. Stephen’s Day fireworks display along the Danube in Budapest – billed as the biggest show in Europe – was canceled on Saturday afternoon based on forecasts that extreme weather was likely to occur around 21 hours.
By evening, storms had not materialized in the capital, but the show, which usually attracts more than a million spectators, had already been postponed until next week due to security concerns.
The layoffs were announced in a brief statement by Minister of Technology and Industry Laszlo Palkovics, a senior cabinet member in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.
The fired weather service chief, Kornelia Radics, had held her post since 2013 and her deputy, Gyula Horvath, since 2016.
Although the minister did not provide a reason for the dismissals, the meteorological service was harshly criticized in the government-aligned Hungarian media, which blamed the service’s “seriously flawed” forecasts for causing an unnecessary postponement of the fireworks.
The Department of Technology and Industry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Critics of Orban’s government, which has been accused of corruption, nepotism and anti-democratic tendencies, have accused the sackings of being politically motivated and a reminder of Hungary’s communist past.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the weather service demanded the reinstatement of its fired leaders. The agency described being under “political pressure” over its weather model assessments over the holidays and that those applying the pressure were “ignoring the scientifically accepted uncertainty inherent in weather forecasting”.
“We strongly believe that, despite considerable pressure from decision makers, our colleagues … have provided the best of their knowledge and are not liable for any alleged or actual damages,” the service wrote.
Independent lawmaker Akos Hadhazy wrote in a Facebook post Monday that the weather service had “never had such a responsibility before.” They can choose to remain silent, or they can choose to strike until the leader, who was fired in a communist-style movement, is reinstated.
“Their decision could change the fate of the whole country,” Hadhazy wrote.
The planned St. Stephen’s Day exhibition, held every August 20, was to present “a condensed chronicle of a thousand years from the birth of Christian Hungary to the present day, focusing on the lessons of national values”, according to the event website. .
It was presented as a “tableau of major periods and significant moments in Hungarian history, emphasizing important national values which can also provide a moral lesson for daily life”.
While the expo is a popular annual event, some Hungarians object to its scale and cost in the country of less than 10 million people. A petition against holding the exhibition has garnered nearly 200,000 signatures, arguing that the money should be used to support Hungary’s struggling economy.
“In a country where the currency is weakening day by day as prices rise, there is no room for such a luxurious spectacle,” the petition reads.
The postponement of the fireworks came 16 years after a deadly St. Stephen’s Day event in 2006, when severe storms with wind gusts of up to 60 miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour) hit Budapest as an estimated 1.5 million people gathered to view the display.
Five people were killed and more than 300 were injured amid the ensuing panic.